Stepping stones to the Neolithic?

Islands, maritime connectivity and the ‘western seaways’ of Britain, 5000-3500 BC

The Stepping Stones project, directed by Fraser Sturt (University of Southampton) and Duncan Garrow (University of Liverpool), aims to answer important research questions about the arrival of the Neolithic in and around Britain and Ireland c. 4000 BC. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the University of Liverpool and the University of Southampton. The initial research which led to the project was funded by the Society of Antiquaries of London. It is also generously supported by our project partner museums: Guernsey Museums and Galleries, Museum nan Eilean and the Isles of Scilly Museum.

The Neolithic

The Neolithic is the term used for the period in our past when the shift from hunting and gathering wild animals and plants to a farming lifestyle occurred. This change happened at different times and in different ways throughout the world, beginning around 10,000 BC in the Middle East and around 4,000 BC in Britain and Ireland. The process by which the Neolithic arrived in Britain and Ireland is currently a hotly debated topic. Some scholars argue that colonists moved wholesale from the continent (bringing farming, pottery, etc. with them from France and/or Belgium), but others have suggested that the indigenous population of Britain gradually adopted the farming lifestyle on their own terms (possibly as a result of a broad shift in their worldview). What is agreed is that some contact between Britain, Ireland and the European mainland must have occurred in the centuries around 4000 BC for the change to happen at all, and that this most likely happened across the ‘western seaways’ – an arc of sea extending approximately from the Channel Islands in the south, through the Isles of Scilly, the Isle of Man and the Hebrides, around to Orkney in the north.

The Stepping Stones project places the islands around Britain firmly at the centre of this key contemporary archaeological debate. This project contends that a detailed understanding of Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic activity within this important zone of contact has the potential to make a crucial contribution to our understanding of the processes of transition, both within the western seaways and on either side. The project involves computer modelling of the sea around that time, the construction of a database of all late Mesolithic and early Neolithic sites within the western seaways zone, and the excavation of three key sites (in the Channel Islands, the Isles of Scilly and the Outer Hebrides). A key outcome of our research will be a series of educational web resources drawing on this research, including a ‘western seaways’ navigation game and a Google Earth ‘plugin’ which enables users to visualise changing sea levels in the past.

The ‘western seaways’

The idea that the sea can connect as well as divide, provide important resources, and play a significant part in how people understand their world, lies at the heart of this project. In trying to improve our understanding of the Neolithic of each island group we are deliberately looking beyond activity on land alone. For those living along the coast, or on small islands, this may seem like a basic requirement. However, the nature of the changes which have occurred over the past eight thousand years, and the questions that archaeologists have been asked of the past, mean that this basic requirement is not easy to get to grips with, and has been somewhat overlooked in recent years.

Sea-level change

The world we inhabit today is in many ways quite different to that which existed during the late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic (c. 6000-3500 BC) within the area considered by this project). Since the Last Glacial Maximum c. 19,000 years ago, when ice covered much of the North of Europe, sea-levels have changed considerably. The melting of these large ice sheets poured water into the worlds oceans and seas, driving up global (eustatic) sea level. In addition, the release of the great weight these sheets represented allowed the land that had been under ice to recover from the pressure which had been exerted upon it. As such, in some areas the land began to rise up, seeing a fall in relative sea-level, while in others it began to sink, accelerating the rate of overall sea-level change. This complex relationship between eustatic (global sea-level) and isostatic (local elevation of the earths crust) factors makes understanding these changes difficult.

Fortunately, a considerable amount of research has been carried out by earth, ocean and environmental scientists, to improve our understanding of these processes. This project will build on recent investigations into these issues for the area around Britain, and place the results within their archaeological context. In addition, it is hoped that through our limited excavation and survey work, we can gain more detail on the impact and rate that some of these changes had on each island group.

The changing sea

Understanding the nature, extent and impact of sea-level change is of considerable importance to this project. However, our interest extends beyond the elevation of the sea, to a consideration of the texture of the sea, how it behaved and how people may have engaged with it; from journeying over it, to catching fish from it. The changes described above not only reconfigured coastlines, but created shifts in tidal races and the extent of inter-tidal zones. In this project we will work with the sea-level change data to create computer models of the sea’s changing behaviour, and what this may have meant to the people who went out onto, and into it. What were the western seaways like over this period and how navigable were they?


  • Fraser Sturt
  • Duncan Garrow (University of Liverpool)